The flight to Seattle, then Vancouver, had passed in a blur. Sophie had been pleasantly surprised when the airline assigned her a window seat in an exit row, and spent the entire flight staring at the earth from above. The desert mountains of Los Angeles gave way to hills covered with unbroken expanses of fir. Right before they descended she’d caught a glimpse of Mount St. Helens’ jagged, snowy caldera, silver streams ribboning through the land at its base.
Her father had always booked her the window when she got old enough to tag along on one of his tours. He’d lean over, huffing with the considerable effort it took to heave his belly out of an economy seat. He’d point out of the thick oval of glass. Look, there’s Honolulu, pretty from up here, no? Or over upstate New York, There is Niagara Falls. Actually, it is three different falls. People have gone over them in barrels, did you know that?
Open sea was the most intriguing. Together they picked out cities of kelp off the Catalina coast, individual manta rays pancaking up into view under the waves and disappearing back down again in Sophie’s fantasies.
Portia lived in a green duplex, number 59. Sophie craned her neck to look at the house numbers, despite feeling no hurry. She would’ve liked to walk down further, enjoying the cold breeze blowing down the street and its attendant serenity. Her father would have liked it too. The quiet of the outer neighborhood of the city. Trees stretching yellow-garlanded leaves high above his head, crowning the avenues.
At least, until it was time to move on again, as he always said.
The loose aluminum she had crunched down over the tops of the pies groaned and threatened to blow away. She adjusted them as best she could, careful not to put too much weight on her right hand, and reluctantly quickened her pace.
Locating “59” nailed to the strut of a porch in large wooden letters, she trudged up the charcoal-colored sidewalk, crunching leaves underfoot. She shifted both pies to one hand to knock on the door. Portia swung it open seconds later. “It’s so good to see you! I’m glad you were able to find my place! Sorry I couldn’t come to get you from the bus stop. I’ve only just finished the stuffing- well, actually, Antonio finished the stuffing and I finished the turkey. Got a late start today. Are you enjoying Vancouver?”
“Yes, it’s lovely,” Sophie said. “I’ve walked pretty much everywhere today. Ended up near the bay.”
““By Morton Park? Did you see the laughing statues? Tell me you took a picture with them- I find those so funny. Melissa made me take a photo with them when I first moved up.” Portia edged her way around Sophie, no small feat in the narrow entryway, and started to tug at her coat. Gratefully, Sophie shrugged the heavy wool off so her friend could hang it up. “If you don’t mind taking off your shoes- thanks- and anyway, come on up and I’ll introduce you to everyone…”
The throbbing, hearty smell of turkey met them halfway up the stairs. Sophie drank it in. “God, it took so long,” Portia said. “It’s this new recipe I wanted to try. It’s maple-glazed. And smoked. I misjudged the timing, so we’ve been drinking too much.”
Sophie detected a familiar scent underneath the warmth of the maple. Vanilla, oak, slowly-cooked caramel. “Tequila?”
Portia smiled sheepishly.
“You haven’t changed at all!”
“Not at all. You’ve been warned.”
Frenetic energy cascaded through the main floor of the house, warm blow voice wafting through the rooms. A record player scratched out the jubilant strains of Maggie Rogers’ Fallingwater. Sophie spotted some of Portia’s old canvases hanging on her walls. Some, like her sketch of Sophie’s old cat Basil, rested in spray-painted gold frames, others hung as Sophie remembered, just sheets of paper tacked onto a wall. Portia turned left at the top of the stairs and entered through a wide doorway into a gleaming white kitchen.
On top of the counter sat a magnificently browned turkey in a lasagna pan, its surface glazed over and shining. Smooth white bowls brimmed with cranberry sauce, and stuffing.
Portia took the chocolate and then the pumpkin pie from Sophie and placed them both in the fridge. “I got whipped cream for the top, like you said you wanted,” The ends of her hair were illuminated in the glow of the sun as it wound toward the horizon, and Sophie remembered the way Portia chewed on the ends absentmindedly during slow afternoons at their old college library. “And there’s some cinnamon and nutmeg to put on top of the pumpkin.” Her voice sounded faster, a little nervous.
“Thanks!” Sophie said. In her own head she sounded too enthusiastic. “Can I help you take the main courses out?” She took the handles of the turkey pan and turned to carry it out, but Portia blocked the door. She held out a hand when Sophie tried to move past her. Portia’s voice came out lilted and halting.
“I’m so glad you came. I’m sorry I was too busy this morning to go out with you. Are you… doing all right?”
“Yeah, I’m okay…” Sophie tried to wave a dismissive hand, but Portia rejected it with a shake of her head and kept talking, a tendency Sophie had always simultaneously loved and hated. Discomfort pricked at the base of her neck.
“I don’t want to put you on the spot, but I do want to know how you’ve been. I didn’t have anyone to ask me that when my grandmother died after I moved up here, and it can be isolating, you know? You’ve been on the road a lot. Does it help?”
“No, not really.” Sophie let her gaze wander toward an apricot tree out back.The tree hadn’t been harvested or pruned properly. A couple of graying globes of fruit still clung to the branches.
“All right… well, listen, if you want to talk…”
“Show me around tomorrow, all right?” Sophie hoped her smile was convincing.
“Okay.” Portia smiled and scooped up two of the white side bowls in a practiced, fluid motion. Sophie let her pass first, and then hoisted the turkey against her hip. A searing pain, like she’d brushed a tendon against the edge of a tin can and pressed bit into her right hand. She almost dropped the pan.
“Are you all right?” Portia quickly set the bowls down and rushed to take the turkey from Sophie.
“Yeah, it’s just…”
She couldn’t remember when her hand had started to cause her pain, but she hadn’t been able to play in weeks.
Her mother called at 4:30pm on a Tuesday. Sophie was stirring a cup of Chicory tea, waiting for it to cool, reading Jezebel articles on her phone. She’d finished teaching at noon. She usually practiced downtown for two or three hours afterward, but she’d felt like going home after a particularly hard lesson. Sinking onto the couch, she’d thought, Shouldn’t attempt to start a third grader off with Kodaly 2, fine, okay, lesson learned. The thought and its accompanying headache were curiously lucid, like a calm break in a windstorm, the last cogent thought she would have for a while.
Her phone buzzed. Sophie checked the clock. Usually her mom called at 3:30, regardless of whatever time zone Sophie happened to be in. She was nothing if not precise. Sophie liked being able to predict her calls with regularity and avoid them, if needed. The timing was so unusual that Sophie answered after the first ring.
Heavy breathing came from the other end of the line.
Sophie’s father had collapsed in an alleyway in Trastevere. In front of the church of Santa Cecilia. Some cruel trick of God, she thought. Her tea began to cool while she listened, disbelieving, to her mother recount what she knew in wavering phrases. Late at night. The only one out on the street. Some poor couple on their honeymoon in Rome had found a crumpled form in their way as they stumbled out of the gastropub next door and into the plaza. Probably put a dent in their plans, she found herself thinking.
She took a deep breath and tried to form a coherent sentence. “When…. when are we going to hold the funeral?”
After an interminable silence on the other end of the line, then her mother spoke. “A couple months. He wanted to be cremated. We’ll wait for that. After that we’ll have a wake.”
How do you know that? Did you find his will already? She’d never known her mother to be that efficient. Or that caring. Their relationship seemed based on throwing sparks at each other and hoping something would set. Even when her father was on tour, they traded biting e-mail messages back and forth across the Atlantic. Sophie sometimes wondered how you could be so unintelligible to the people you loved. Now she heard the affection underneath the barbs.
“I’m still here. Sorry. What do I need to do-” Her voice sounded far away and flat. The golden hour had come and gone. She sat in its embers.
“Honey, I know you’re upset. I’m sorry I can’t be there with you.” A warm rush spread through Sophie’s limbs, ahd she willed it to overtake the weakness. Then her mother sighed. “That man… I always told him to take better care of himself, eat some damn fruits and vegetables instead of meat and pasta….and now… well, all I’m saying is, this wasn’t entirely unexpected, you know?”
“That’s what you have to say?” Sophie snapped into the receiver. Did her mother think that lessened the blow?
Dad had taught her Chopin, and then Karoly, and then Messaien. More importantly, he taught her what it meant to pursue a life like his. He had missed birthdays and anniversaries and chalked it up to the rigorousness of scheduling and the fact that he had to adhere to the whims of others. And then just as suddenly he would appear in the house one day after school along with a small present for both of them. Something orange and alive; poppies, marigolds, oranges. And gone again when Sophie got up for school a week later. He was even distant when they traveled together, disappearing into strains of music and willing his muscle memory abilities forward for the next piece, abruptly returning to the present to dazzle her with some obscure musical knowledge.
He had not wanted the same thing for her. Then she saw him perform Rachmaninoff’s third symphony in Los Angeles.
Their cab had gotten stuck in traffic, and they were slightly late. Sophie left him backstage and ran out to take her seat. Around her, the audience was buzzing, confused, a little bit angry. She could feel their small worries within her. They hadn’t paid and gotten dressed up for nothing, had they? Would they hear Luger play tonight after all?
Then her father strode onstage to the piano bench. He sat and looked out at the audience. He didn’t speak for a moment. She wondered if he was about to apologize. The lights continued their constant, low-grade sizzle overhead. The expectations of the audience pressed down like a blanket over the velvet seats and somber wall sconces.
Her father cleared his throat. “Ahem- I’m sorry to be late, ladies and gentlemen. Los Angeles can still surprise you, it seems.”
He looked around, then continued, “Before I begin, I’d like to give you a little background on Rachmaninoff. I relate strongly to him. He failed at a lot of things in his life.”
The audience started to snicker hesitantly.
“It’s true! We play his work consistently today, but he worked more or less for twenty years until a rich patron agreed to premiere his first symphony. And it was a disaster. The conductor was incompetent, at best, and a drunk at the worst.”
People started to laugh and rustle in their seats. Sophie felt the atmosphere relaxing.
“And now we delight in hearing it. Times change, do they not? And what was once a failure is now a phenomenal piece of music. Everyone wants to play it, interpret it, listen to it. Hard to see the greatness of something at first, no? So, ladies and gentlemen, without further ado…”
Sophie was thirteen. Already adept, from then on she was hooked. She recounted that story to her piano students every time she took on a new one. The importance of connection, of recreating the mood and making whoever was listening feel like you and they were kindred spirits- that was what playing was.
“You know what, Mom- I have to go. I’ll call you back later.”
Someone would play at the wake and she was determined that it would be her. It’d be right after her performance in Vancouver, but Chopin wasn’t right for this moment. She couldn’t summon the fervor, . Her mind circled back to angry sonatas and landed on Prelude to the Tempest. She practiced it, first interspersing it with Chopin’s second, which she was supposed to be practicing for Rose’s concert, and then repeating it over and over until her fingers could fly up and down the keys by heart, and she could zone out and listen to the anger contained in the melody. Her back began to hurt and her mind started to wander. She kept playing until it wandered so much that she’d forget where she was in the piece and panic, losing her concentration. In one split second, the anger and sadness of the piece dissipated, so she started all over again. And over again, until her hand began to hurt. She stopped. And started again, without cramping in her wrist. It always returned within the first movement. And so she stopped.
“Sophie, this is Antonio. And Bennett. They’re our neighbors- other side of the duplex. Antonio, Bennett, this is Sophie. We roomed together in college. And Sophie, you know my roommate Melissa,” Portia said, driving a knife into the turkey. Bennett, sitting across from Sophie, raised his lowball glass with a smile, while Antonio reached across to shake her hand. Melissa, a tall woman with long red hair, inclined her head, then turned to give a low whistle of appreciation at Portia’s perfectly-cooked turkey.
“Nice to meet you.”
“Nice to meet you too- all of you. I’ve heard all about you,” Sophie said.
“Oh, Jesus. I can’t wait to hear what Portia said about me!” Antonio said.
“Terrible things, I’m sure,” Melissa said, smiling. Antonio swatted her with the unfolded napkin.
Bennett rolled his eyes. “That smells delicious, Portia. Thanks for inviting us.”
“No problem. Pass the plates around,” Portia said. She started doling the turkey out and directing its passing around the table, from Antonio, to Bennett, Sophie, and finally Melissa. Antonio started scooping stuffing onto his plate.
“You know, this smells like the turkey your friend- what was his name? Grayson? Or Gabriel? The software analyst or something- made us dinner that one Thanksgiving,” Melissa said.
“Yeah.. I had almost forgotten about him. The horse-obsessed one,” Portia answered, piling turkey onto her plate. To Sophie’s look of confusion, she added, “I dated him when I first moved here. Really into horses. He used to volunteer at a horse stable all the way out in Burnaby. Never had time for a date”
“He doesn’t sound as bad as that guy you dated in junior year though, the one who never smiled,” Melissa said through a mouthful of food.
“Thank goodness for that.” Portia’s chiming laughter filled the room. “Can you confirm, Sophie?”
“Much better,” Sophie said. She’d lost track of the conversation for a second, browsing Portia and Melissa’s bookshelves for titles she recognized (though she found most were nonfiction policy titles). She jolted back suddenly.
“Ladies, I tire of this discussion.” Antonio set his fork down and stretched his arms out behind him, his fingers interlaced. “Sophie, where are you from?”
“I’m from San Diego.” Sophie left off the “sort of” explanation she usually added to questions like this.
“Hear it’s lovely. But a bit too warm for my taste. I like somewhere you can actually feel the cold.”
“Sure you do! Even though you complain from November until March!” Melissa exclaimed. “Take Antonio with a grain of salt, Sophie.”
Antonio pouted. “Hey! At least I’m paying attention. Warmer places, you get complacent. Here, you have to actually check the weather before going out in the morning. Layer up with a nice coat. Then you feel the wind hit your face when you step outside and it wakes you up. You start paying a little more attention to things that way.”
“I suppose I agree,” Sophie said. “But you have to have the right coat. And not have to walk too far.”
“Walking too far? No such thing! It’s the stuff of life. That’s what all the great thinkers do to gather ideas. Walk, think, sleep, rinse, repeat! Then they write them down or something, but I dropped out of college, so what do I know about great writers and philosophers?”
Sophie grinned. Antonio’s easy banter was soothing. His face was getting slightly red from the wine Melissa had poured before they sat, even though none of them had finished a full glass yet. She had the distinct sense that he was the sort of person who would slap his knee like a cartoon character if anything he found even slightly funny came out of his friends’ mouths.
It was true she’d walked all over downtown that morning. To the Gastown steam clock, which was much less inspiring than she’d thought; to MacLeod’s Books, where old paperbacks were stacked in dusty piles and sorted by subject into beautiful oak bookcases in their own labyrinthine configuration. Down by a coffee shop in False Creek she sat and watched as people ordered London Fogs in huge steaming mugs and picked them up with both hands to sip from them. She liked the image- one of absolute comfort.It was secure, homey. It reflected the whole city, somehow.
“All right, I concede. The walking isn’t so bad. In fact, I plan to do a lot more of it tomorrow,” she said.
“Glad you’re coming around! What brought you here in the first place?”
“I’m playing a concert up here in a couple days. I play piano… occasionally,” she said.
“Occasionally? What do you do in the meantime? Think about playing?”
“Hey, if you’re mean, she’s never going to stay. So be nice,” Portia interjected.
“Staying? Is that so?” Antonio rested his elbows on the table, brushing Portia off. “No kidding!”
“I’ve been trying for years to tell her how beautiful it is up here,” Portia wheedled. Turning to Sophie, she said, “And this city is huge, and very artsy- if you go out to the suburbs, you can make a fortune teaching.” She turned back to Antonio. “Help me out here.”
“Well, we all know the healthcare is better,” Melissa said airily.
“Debatable,” Antonio said. “Tradeoffs everywhere you go.”
“Isn’t that the truth,” Bennett spoke up, through an impressive mouthful of turkey. He’d laden his plate with cranberry sauce, gravy, and stuffing, and started to shovel it into his mouth like he hadn’t eaten in days. Sophie glanced at him; he looked away after a brief second. “You’re probably right to be apprehensive. Always a complicated price to pay for chasing happiness.”
Antonio noted Sophie’s confusion. “Don’t mind Bennett. He’s kind of a wet blanket. Portia, have I told you that he treats his cast-iron skillet better than he treats most people?” Portia chuckled and rolled her eyes. “No, really! He cleans it after every use and oils it- with actual proper seasoning spray, not just oil, and he’s got the little brush for it too, like it does anything different…”
“Hmm. I agree with you,” Sophie said, looking at Bennett. He leaned forward in response. Before she could stop herself, she found words spilling out of her mouth. “My father was a concert pianist. We traveled to so many places for his concerts. It’s an exciting life, but a hard one. You never quite feel like you’re on the ground.”
In piano, there is a phrase, legato. It means an unbroken continuation of music, in a smooth, flowing manner, without breaks between notes. Like a river. It is technically impossible to achieve in piano, a doubly percussive instrument; the key you hit strikes a hammer, which strikes a string, and they can’t all happen at once.
After Sophie’s mother hung up, she sat in her apartment for an interminable time. Dying light melted into blue darkness. Unseen leaves scratched against the window.
This wasn’t entirely unexpected. She was half glad and half ashamed that she hadn’t accompanied him to Trastevere. Not that she had had the choice. Usually, even though she’d grown up and conducted her own life, was even considering moving to a different city like he had done himself, he always asked whether she’d like to accompany him to one of his concertos, though they’d become fewer over the years until he stopped completely and she had to dig it out of him, where he was going next.
Come to think of it, he’d only stopped once she started considering moving away from them. He’d lived all over, finally moving from Italy to the United States. Sophie had a trove of good stories about her parents’ previous life in Europe she pulled out for parties. She enjoyed the way that her tales of their walking miles between flea markets on Saturdays, whiling away long slow afternoons with an affogato in the neighborhood cafe, and once getting caught in the middle of a political protest trying to get off the train, elicited a romantic response. That sounds like Heaven on earth. Why would you ever move? Sophie had only heard snippets of that part growing up, but the legacy this life bestowed on her, even if she hadn’t been there, gave her a romantic glamour she didn’t want to correct.
She knew, without a doubt, why he had stopped wanting her to come on his travels. She’d booked the Vancouver gig a few months prior and called to share the news.
“Hello?” he answered, rasping with a lifetime’s worth of cigarette smoke in his voice.
“Dad! I booked a concert!”
She ignored the disbelief and focused on the pride. “Yes, really. In Vancouver. At Pratt Hall.”
“Hmm… I played there, once…. In eighty-nine, it was, maybe?” His voice got dreamy and distant. Sophie cut the reverie off right there; she felt bad, but was beginning to lose patience for them. “Yes, it’s at the beginning of November. I’m excited. It’s supposed to be really nice up there.” She paused. “Might… might see if I would ever want to live there.”
“Move! To a different country? What, when did this happen?”
“It didn’t, not really, I guess. Just something that came to mind.”
“Why not?” she said, vaguely annoyed. Typical of him to react negatively. Hypocritical too. “I mean, look, I’ve been here for 27 years. It might be time for something new. You know I haven’t been getting much luck with teaching gigs or concerts down here…”
“And you will have better luck somewhere else?”
“No, no. Take it from me, Sophie. Stay where you are. Good opportunities, they always come to people who wait for them.”
“Dad, look, it’s just something I’ve been thinking about, okay? Nothing’s happening, I’m not moving anywhere yet. Just keeping my options open,” she said. Her face felt redder with each word. “Besides, you did it, didn’t you? And now you’re trying to stop me from… what, exactly? I’m not sure I get it.”
“Bring a scarf,” he said, then abruptly changed the subject. “You know, your mother would like to see you, why don’t you come down this Friday and visit…”
“Sure,” she said, resigned. He hung up shortly.
It was hard to pinpoint why she felt so restless afterward. He had no problem lighting the way through his own world, but always got cold at the idea of her making it her own. He always had. She already lived this sort of life, didn’t she?
What it might be like to live a fully continuous life, one where you got up and went to work every day. Where you worked nine to five and that was what you expected. It might be continuous. Regular. Steady. Stable. She’d decided long ago, though, that there wasn’t any thrill in it.
Sophie carried the empty lasagna pan into the kitchen after dinner. Portia trailed her with various bowls and utensils collected precariously in her folded arms, while everyone left at the table sighed with contentment. They looked a formidable task piled in the sink. “I’ll get the rest,” Portia said, and Sophie nodded while she glided back out to the dining room.
She opted to ignore the dishes and start on the pies instead, rummaging around in Portia’s cabinets for the cinnamon and nutmeg. The pies had set nicely; she took them out and set them on the counter, finding the whipped cream in the refrigerator.
Snippets of conversation drifted into the kitchen.
“…look at this guy, planning his next campaign at dinner!”
“Antonio, you make fun of Bennett so much, I’d be surprised if you don’t show up here tomorrow with a black eye because he’s clocked you.”
“Don’t worry, Melissa. He’s just jealous because I have a life.”
A loud “OOOOOOH” went up from the table. Sophie smiled. There was an easiness to their conversation she always wished she’d felt around others. She imagined them sitting around the table, a complete quartet, connected by so many invisible threads. They reminded her of the Rachmaninoff performance; everyone simply looking for that connection. The chance to do so was really what her father had offered the audience. She imagined being one of them, looking into his world as an outsider, seeing its long unbroken thread.
Portia tapped her on the shoulder. “Hey, what’s up? You all right?”
“Yeah, I was just thinking. Thanks for inviting me, your friends are great.”
“Pssh, say that at the end of the night, you haven’t seen how rowdy they can get yet. Luckily I’ve got a bottle of gin and some tonic somewhere, then we can really get started…” She stood on a foldout stool and began pulling things out of a cabinet above the oven hood.
Sophie tapped her arm to recapture her attention. Portia looked down from the stool. “Really, thank you. It’s been lonely, you know? It’s been nice to… feel like you’re part of something.”
Portia climbed down from the stool. “I know… I’m sorry for asking you earlier, still.” She rubbed her right arm with her left.
“No, I appreciate it. My dad would’ve liked you guys, and this place, a lot. Never wanted me to move away though, even though he lived all over the world.”
“Tough to get past that?”
“A little bit, yeah.”
“Soph, you can do whatever you want with your life. In fact, you already do. No use being mad at your dad about it, though.” She paused and thought, then intoned, “He that gives mercy is twice-blest.”
“Where’d you get that from?” Sophie asked, bemused.
“I don’t know. Some play Melissa and I went to see at the Globe, I think. Thought you’d like it- am I right?” Portia bounced on her heels.
“I take that as a yes.”
“Yeah.” Portia had always had a knack for remembering pithy lines that Sophie usually found true to life.
“Good! So, what’s next after the concert here?” Portia asked.
Sophie thought a second. “Nothing much… playing at the funeral.”
Portia’s face fell. “I didn’t realize that. What are you going to play?”
“Hmm.” Sophie deliberated for a second. The discordant strains of the Tempest were a poor way to honor him, she knew. Something smooth, lovely, continuous was what she needed. Something that gave to the audience the way he would have.
“Maybe Nocturne in E flat major. He always loved that piece.”
“Oh, I remember you used to play that a lot down in the music hall! I loo-oooved hearing you play it.” Portia smiled and walked back out to the dining room. Sophie finished the pies, and stood admiring her handiwork for a minute: swirls of white cream in perfect concentric circles with an evenly speckled dusting of cinnamon and nutmeg on top. Perfectly balanced. When she picked them up, she noted with pleasure that her right wrist wasn’t giving way, even when she held the pie tin aloft like a server. Humming the opening chords of the Nocturne, she walked back into the dining room to rejoin the party.